Counselors help explain why people engage in risky behavior
Fear is a good thing it causes people to take steps to minimize risk and keep themselves safe.
That’s what I learned this week from a couple of local counselors I asked to help me understand why some gay men in our community keep putting themselves in harm’s way by entering into relationships with people they don’t know very well. I’ve lost count of the number of gay men who have died in the last few years, apparently as a result of inviting strangers into their lives.
Many people wind up dead because drug and alcohol use left them unafraid of scary places and scary people. But that’s not always the case.
The most recent to die was George Stephenson, an Oak Lawn resident who was known for his kindness, wit and intelligence.
The 69-year-old retired graphic artist and substance abuse counselor was found in his second home in Gainesville last week, beaten and stabbed to death. A 32-year-old suspected drug addict, who is described as a male hustler by police, is charged with capital murder in connection with the crime.
Nothing about Stephenson’s death makes any sense to me. A police detective told me he believes Stephenson had hired his suspected killer, Robert Lester Canaga, for sex on more than one occasion. Stephenson’s close friends think it was more likely that as an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he was trying to help Canaga get sober.
Either scenario is confusing because it raises an important question. Why would someone put themselves at risk and alone in the company of a stranger who may have been a drug addict?
It appears Stephenson may have lost touch with one of the most basic of human emotions. I’m sure at some point he felt the fear that might have saved his life had it kicked in earlier, but by then it was too late.
In Stephenson’s case, it seems likely to me that after years of working with addicts to help them recover, he unwisely began to think he could handle anything that might arise regardless of the reason he was in the suspect’s company.
The two counselors I contacted were speaking in generalities, and neither knew Stephenson. Their comments are not intended to be an analysis of Stephenson, but instead examples of problems some people gay and straight experience.
Randy Martin, who is a substance abuse counselor, said some people take fewer steps to minimize their risks than others do.
"Something in their own history has short-circuited their survival instinct that causes them to evaluate risk and to minimize it as much as possible," Martin said.
Martin said connecting with other people is always risky when it puts someone into the vulnerable situation of inviting a stranger into their home, even if it is a second or third meeting. The stranger’s motives can change over time, he said.
"You might take a person home who has no intention of doing anything other than having sex for money," Martin said. "Once they find you’ve got lots of nice things around the house, the motive may change."
Martin said an individual who is homeless and selling their bodies may operate under a "whole different system of rules and survival skills" from the majority of society, particularly if they are under the influence of a mind-altering substance. That could be stealing food to get through the night or mugging somebody to provide their basic survival needs, he said.
"For the serious addict, getting their drug of choice is survival for them on the most basic of levels," Martin said. "Asking a serious addict to stop using is really asking them on a deep psychological level to make a life or death choice. It is really at the survival level that the decision is made."
Martin said one of the common traits he sees in people in early and late periods of recovery is a loss of fear when dealing with people who are still using substances.
"It is not a smart thing ever to just try to take on the addiction of someone else and be the doctor," Martin said.
Candy Marcum, another local counselor, said fear is what makes us "look before we cross the street and lock the doors."
"When I see someone living fearlessly, that makes me nervous," Marcum said. "That tells me they are living recklessly."
Marcum said two reasons come to her mind about why someone might engage in the risky behavior of becoming intimate with a stranger or hiring a prostitute.
Many LGBT people lack the self-esteem it requires to meet people in social settings and to undertake the traditional ritual of dating, Marcum said. They prefer to connect with strangers because it requires fewer social skills, she said.
Others might simply get a thrill out of courting danger, Marcum said.
"For some people, that danger is a real adrenalin rush," said Marcum, who equated sexual compulsivity with a feeling of getting high similar to the use of alcohol or drugs. "It feels good."
Many times, people who are engaging in risky behavior for the thrill hide that side of their life from their families and friends, Marcum said.
It is a secret life that makes them feel good, she said.
Again, exactly what happened to Stephenson remains a mystery. There may be only one person who knows exactly what led to the man who was loved by so many losing his life. It remains to be seen if that information will ever be shared.
In the meantime, maybe someone can learn from Stephenson’s mistake don’t lose touch with your feelings of fear.
From what I’ve heard about Stephenson from his closest friends, I think he would be grateful if a lesson learned from his death wound up helping others stay out of harm’s way.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 15, 2008